A major grain export terminal in Vancouver, Wash., is effectively shut down because state grain inspectors refuse to enter the facility, citing harassment from longshoremen.
The disruption is worrisome for farm groups, who don’t want foreign buyers to question the dependability of U.S. grain exports due to an ongoing dispute between the longshoremen’s union and Northwest grain handlers.
“The reliability of the U.S. grain inspection system is called into question when a third party, with threatening and intimidating behavior toward inspectors, has the ability to shut down terminal operations,” said Pat McCormick, a spokesman for the grain exporters.
Grain shipments must be inspected for weight and quality under federal law, but the USDA can delegate that authority to state inspectors.
United Grain Co. locked out the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from its Vancouver facility last year as part of a labor contract disagreement, which resulted in picketing activity at the site’s entrance.
Meanwhile, the export terminal has continued to operate with company managers and non-union employees.
To assuage the fears of state inspectors from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed state troopers to provide an escort past the longshoremen’s picket lines in October 2013.
“They were being harassed. A lot of verbal abuse, obscenities and remarks our staff took as threats,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the WSDA.
Citing a lack of progress in labor talks between ILWU and several Northwest grain handlers, Inslee discontinued those escorts, which caused state inspectors to stop entering the United Grain facility on July 7.
“There had been no motion in the negotiations, (escorts) had become the status quo, when it was never intended to be,” said Castro.
Capital Press was unable to reach a spokesperson for ILWU as of press time.
McCormick, who represents the United Grain Co. and other handlers, said the company monitors the picket lines closely and has not witnessed any problems at the site in recent months.
The company has also offered to pay for the state troopers’ escort services or fly the grain inspectors into the site on a helicopter, but the offers were refused by WSDA, he said.
“It’s really much more about the governor trying to press UGC to settle the contract, rather than safety concerns of the grain inspectors,” said McCormick.
It’s technically possible for the USDA and grain buyers to waive the inspection requirement, but this would be a rare and unusual outcome, he said.
Another option would be for USDA grain inspectors to work at United Grain as they do at the Columbia Grain facility in Portland, which is also subject to pickets due to a lockout of longshoremen, McCormick said.
The possibility of federal grain inspectors entering the Vancouver export terminal is still under review and there is no timeline for the final decision, said Dexter Thomas, acting chief of staff at USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.
“Hopefully we’ll have something in the near future on that, but I can’t really say,” Thomas said.
A group of 19 agricultural groups have sent a joint letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, requesting that federal officials immediately take over inspections at United Grain.
“The disruptions that already have occurred have put at risk the United States’ reputation as a reliable supplier of grains and oilseeds to foreign customers,” the letter said.